The Importance of Swamps | CAI

The Importance of Swamps

Dec 11, 2018


Credit Dennis Minsky

Provincetown is a geological afterthought, and everything from High Head in North Truro outward is composed of the leftovers from the rest of the Cape. 


The first line of dunes, formed roughly 15,000 years ago, is probably where downtown Commercial Street is now…. another line runs about where Route 6 is, and a still later line is represented by the towering beauty we see to the right as we drive into town.

Around 1850, Thoreau described Provincetown as:  not so much a town, but “houses on a beach”.    Early development in Provincetown centered on the waterfront, with very little north of Bradford Street.  This area, from Herring Cove to East Harbor, was a series of wetlands, interspersed with sandy, brushy, coastal landforms- call them “dunes” or just - wilderness. 

My old friend Tucker used to talk about how he and his boyhood friends could walk from North Truro into Provincetown, hunting rabbits and squirrels, and never encounter a house- and there were lots of rabbits.  

Even downtown Gosnold Street shows signs of once being a tidal creek; Snail Road was a path of sand… Stop and Shop was a pond. If the Wetlands Protection Act were passed in the 1930s instead of the 1970s this town would be radically different.  

Politicians refer to “draining the swamp”- it is in our lexicon, and maybe in our genes- because that is what you do with such worthless areas.  It was truly a bipartisan issue.  We never quite knew what to do with “swamps” – but now we do: save them.

Now one kind of swamp is a White Cedar Swamp.  White Cedars create their own ecosystem.  They grow so densely that they shade out virtually every other plant, except for a few fellow travelers, like sphagnum moss.  And they lay down a layer of intensely acid peat that further inhibits competition. 

Walking in a White Cedar swamp has been likened to being in “an aisle in a darkened cathedral.”  It does have a religious feel to it, an eerie silence and a subdued lighting that encourages a thoughtful presence.  Native Americans sought out cedar swamps, for refuge from the settlers, but before that, for spiritual solace.    

Cedars were important in colonial days.  The charcoal was used to make gunpowder, and the wood was used for shingles and other building components because the wood resisted decay.  It was even said that water barrels made of cedar held the purest water because it was slightly acidic and therefore purified.  Old-time Boston used cedar logs for water mains.

But back to the present.  I am not sure of the exact percentage, but well over half of all wetlands in this country have been filled, including lower Manhattan and Logan airport.  What can we do with the pitiful remnants of wetlands that are left to us?  We must save them.  Even the smallest isolated vegetated wetland provides essential habitat for wildlife, protection from flooding and erosion and water pollution.  Beyond that: save them for themselves.  Thoreau reminds us: 

           “This curious world which we inhabit is more wonderful than it is 

             convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired than 

             it is to be used.”